Montreal boutique owner Ghislain Rousseau never made it to last week’s Ville-Marie borough public council meeting to challenge Mayor Gerald Tremblay about rising crime and violence in Montreal’s gay village. Rousseau was delayed after his store, located in the village, was attacked by a homophobic pedestrian just minutes before the meeting began.
“I was wrapping up with a client and getting ready to go to the meeting when my store was the victim of a homophobic assault,” Rousseau explained to me afterward. “I have a poster of two men [holding hands] in my window display, and I heard this big bang on the window, and this girl is trying to smash it in with her foot. I said, ‘What are you doing!’ And she said, ‘This is a fucking faggot store! This is nudity! I don’t want my children to see this! Are you a homo?’ I replied to her, ‘We are in the gay village and I am proud to be a fucking homo!’
“I stopped her before she could smash my window,” Rousseau continues. “Then two police cruisers arrived, took her aside and body-searched her. They were actually quite supportive [of me]. But she was still aggressive and homophobic. The police were very firm with her and told her to leave. But that’s all they can do with the mandate they have. There is no zero-tolerance for this. This was a homophobic attack and the police can’t take her in.”
There have been more violent attacks in the gay village in recent weeks. Rousseau has collected accounts of 32 similar incidents in just the last two months on his Facebook page, Alliance des résidants et commerçants de Ville-Marie.
So while Rousseau was dealing with the cops at his store, I was actually at the Ville-Marie borough public council meeting. During question period I asked Mayor Tremblay (mayor of both the City of Montreal as well as Ville-Marie borough) in French, “Over the last few months several assaults have been reported in the gay village. There are complaints that city parks Serge Garant [behind the Beaudry metro station] and Émilie-Gamelin [Berri Square] are too dark and not properly lit up. Does the city have a short-term plan to deal with this problem, to ensure the safety of residents, before the issue affects gay tourism?”
“The city will check out the possibility of better lighting and increased police presence in the parks,” Tremblay replied, pointing out he will be meeting with the provincial health minister, Yves Bolduc, soon to discuss the province’s plan to deal with indigence in Montreal, specifically the high ratio of indigents with severe drug and psychiatric problems concentrated in Ville-Marie, especially in and around the gay village. Seventy-three of the city’s 75 groups servicing the indigent, drug addicted and sex worker populations are located in Ville-Marie. “Homeless people are not the problem,” Rousseau notes. “It is the concentration of these services in one neighbourhood that is a problem.”
Add to that the gang-involved drug dealers in Serge Garant and Émilie-Gamelin parks and you have a combustible situation. “They are concentrating these services and their vulnerable clientele in a lion’s den,” says Rousseau.
“These drug dealers are selling cheap, highly addictive drugs that bring in consumers who need to get a fix, and they are assaulting and stealing from people, and most of the time they are homophobic,” Rousseau adds. “This is a new thing. I now hear stories from everybody about homophobic comments in the village.”
So after a sympathetic Mayor Tremblay answered my question at the Ville-Marie borough meeting, I pressed further. “Does that mean you foresee the short-term solution of better lighting within the next two weeks, before the end of the year, or in January?”
Ville-Marie general manager Alain Dufort replied that repairing existing lamps will require time, but Tremblay quickly added that the $20,000 budgeted for Christmas lights in the gay village could help alleviate the lighting problem. “There could be some money left over from this $20,000 to invest in [better] lighting in the gay village over the short term,” Tremblay said.
Rousseau says, “Lighting is a big issue. Serge Garant and Parc de l’Espoir need to be dealt with simultaneously. There needs to be bright lighting. Put Christmas lights, I don’t care. Just put up some lights. We can’t wait another three months.”
In addition to their own safety, many village merchants are also worried the violence will scare away customers.
When I asked Tourisme Montreal representatives if they are concerned that the crime wave in the gay village (and stories about it like this one) could affect Montreal’s large gay tourism industry, the organization’s president and CEO, Charles Lapointe, replied in a statement, “As far as I know we have not received any complaints or remarks about this subject from tourists. It’s a phenomenon similar to road construction: it’s very difficult for Montrealers, but tourists are less aware of it. We have just won the prize for Best Global Destination for the LGBT Market from NewNextNow. I don’t believe this problem will affect our market in the short term.”
Says Rousseau, “Right now Montreal’s gay village is like a motel with a cockroach problem: you turn on the light and see cockroaches everywhere. The [media glare] is turning a projector on the village. We’ve overlooked this problem for years and now it’s overflowing. If this problem is not dealt with properly now, the village will lose its bloom.”